It is said that there is no constitutional clause ensuring the freedom of speech to UK citizens. Despite that, the press in the UK and United States have similar freedoms.

How does the US contrast freedom of speech with illegality of certain words and ideas? How are certain ideas made illegal despite freedom of speech, for example holocaust denial, defamation, rude words, protection of legal information, of corporate secrets, etc.?

  • 1
    I don't have time for an answer right now, but here's something to get you started: The UK has incorporated the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. The relevant articles are 10 & 11
    – yannis
    Commented Apr 2, 2015 at 10:31
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    There seem to be two questions here. Are you asking about the differences between UK freedom of speech and US freedom of speech, or are you asking how and why there are exemptions to US freedom of speech?
    – Publius
    Commented Apr 2, 2015 at 10:47
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    What exactly do you expect in an answer which isn't contained in relevant Wiki articles in excruciating detail? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_speech , en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_speech_in_the_United_States, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_free_speech_exceptions
    – user4012
    Commented Apr 2, 2015 at 14:49
  • Many of the things you mentioned either are legal in the US, or are much less restricted than in the rest of the world (particularly for defamation, which is extremely difficult to prove in the US). Holocaust denial and rude words are generally protected (the latter can be unprotected in a very few cases, but the conditions where they're unprotected are narrow).
    – cpast
    Commented Apr 2, 2015 at 20:23
  • There is very little freedom of speech in the UK. For example, it is a criminal offence to deliberately offend someone in public. It seems British people like it that way as there are almost no votes in making it more free.
    – Simd
    Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 14:22

5 Answers 5


I don't know enough about the UK to give a complete, contrasting answer. I'll tell you about the US and hopefully someone else will give a better more complete answer later.

Generally, nothing is illegal to say in the US as long as it can be half argued to be an expression of ideas. You can literally walk into a courthouse with the words "fuck the draft" on your shirt, and it's perfectly legal. Cohen v California.

Even disgustingly dishonorable lies, when not perpetrated for the purpose of financial gain, are okay. US v Alvarez.

In fact, fake child pornography may be legal simply because it could fall into the category of art and art is considered speech since it is used to convey ideas. Ashcroft v Free Speech Coalition.

The restrictions come into play when you are not expressing ideas at all. For example libel and slander, lying to defraud people for financial gain, or obscenity with no speech content.

Health and education information are legally protected and can't be disclosed without your consent. HIPAA is the law protecting health related privacy. I don't know the name of the law protecting education information. In general, privacy is protected because the value of privacy outweighs the value of the limited, if any, ideological content that could be conveyed.

Corporate secrets aren't directly protected by the government. One signs a contract with one's employers promising not to disclose secrets and the government only gets involved in civil court if one violates said contract.

  • This is inaccurate in a number of respects; it doesn't talk about time, place, and manner restrictions, or other exemptions to free speech which is specifically what OP seems to be asking about. And it extrapolates incorrect conclusions because of it; all pornography is considered obscenity, and thus not under free speech protections. For example, even if it were legal, you still couldn't sell it to minors, but if it were protected by free speech, that wouldn't be the case (see Brown v. EMA).
    – Publius
    Commented Apr 2, 2015 at 10:47
  • True. I left out a lot because covering every exception would require writing a book. I took a class on individual rights in college that devoted a month or two solely to cover free speech and the various tests they use. Just look at the Wikipedia page on free speech in the US. If you really think it's necessary to cover everything, then I think the best solution is probably to delete my answer. I don't have the effort for that. :P I'm going to leave it long enough for you to see this and delete.
    – Tyler
    Commented Apr 2, 2015 at 10:52
  • And your exception doesn't break my general statement that speech is protected when it can be argued to be about ideas. Giving porn to children isn't about ideas.
    – Tyler
    Commented Apr 2, 2015 at 10:54
  • That seems to support my point about obscene speech not being protected. Regardless, I think part of the issue stems from OP's question being unclear. I've asked him to clarify.
    – Publius
    Commented Apr 2, 2015 at 11:00
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    You might also want to mention that the US definition of defamation is much stricter than elsewhere.
    – cpast
    Commented Apr 9, 2015 at 3:35

Many of the things you list aren't actually illegal in the United States, at least not criminally. The first amendment is pretty explicit that the government can't make the exercise of speech illegal, though over time the Supreme Court has ruled that there are certain compelling situations that restricting speech is allowed. Generally exceptions tend to follow the same pattern that the state must provide a compelling reason/interest to restrict speech in a certain context.

  • Speech advocating the use of force for imminent lawless action that is likely to occur is not protected, this would also include provocation.
  • False statements of fact are only unprotected in cases where the speaker is knowingly stating false facts and in a culpable state of mind. Furthermore these instances are almost all civil infractions and not criminal ones. Libel/Slander/Defamation is very hard to prove in the US compared to every other country, and the details would be an entirely separate answer.
  • Obscenity is must first pass the Miller test to be unprotected. Child pornography has been listed as a specific exemption that is always unprotected, though the definition is specific and narrow to what constitutes child pornography.
  • Free speech is also unprotected in cases of copyright infringement or similar laws

you can find a more comprehensive list here.

  • 1
    For provocation, it's still often protected. Courts have been very wary of restricting speech because of how others will respond to it. Also, the libel standard you mention is (I think) only for public figures and officials (including people who are public figures only in the context of the discussion); for someone who isn't a public figure, it can be easier to show libel (but still not easy).
    – cpast
    Commented Apr 2, 2015 at 20:34
  • @watcher That's actually a bad reference; Schenck was overturned in Brandenburg v. Ohio (what Schenck said was that advocating against the draft in wartime could be illegal, which is no longer the case).
    – cpast
    Commented Apr 4, 2015 at 14:40

UK has no freedom of speech. Their police force actively monitor Twitter for any offensive tweets. "Promoting racism and discrimination" is also an arrestable offense.


Of course, like all laws, this isn't equally applied to everyone. Some people are more equal than others, and can get away with it.


  • Under what law is "promoting racism and discrimination" an arrestable offence? Commented May 7, 2015 at 6:49
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    Thanks, I have read that the UK is covered by the EU convention on freedom of expression, that does include exceptions to strike the right balance in between freedom of expression and abuse thereof. findlaw.co.uk/law/government/constitutional_law/… Commented May 7, 2015 at 11:03
  • Thanks that's a very interesting comment. I found this article demonstrating that 5000+ people a year are investigated in the UK for online comments, mostly muslims making racist comments, and some have gotten stiff sentences for posting things like "uk soldiers die you are going to hell" here: firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/01/06/… Commented May 7, 2015 at 11:08
  • if your first point were correct, a large portion of the staff of the Daily Mail would have been arrested long ago. Commented Mar 29, 2019 at 13:17

There is really no comparison. The UK has much less freedom of speech both in theory and in practice. Some examples: In the UK it is a criminal offence to deliberating offendinsult someone in public; there is both a government and a corporate list of websites no one is allowed to access which is enforced by the isps; some political groupings are "banned" if they are said to be linked to terrorism; spontaneous protests are illegal without police permission and so on and so forth.

It is also much easier to sue someone for libel in the UK and it is very expensive to defend yourself even if you end up winning the case.

I don't know if there are any examples of where the UK has freer speech than the US.

  • Would you say that the press/media is more free in the UK or in the US? what stories would be admissible in the US and not the UK? There are recognized terrorist groups, so groups linked to al quaeda are not banned in america? is it legal to have raves in america? it it easier to sue in america for everhthing except libel? Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 17:26
  • About your last question... What other speech related matter might one sue for if not libel?
    – Simd
    Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 22:09
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    @Lembik Copyright/trademark infringement, false advertising, fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress, harassment, appropriation of name or likeness, public disclosure of private facts, etc. There are lots of torts that can be for speech-related things besides slander and libel.
    – cpast
    Commented Apr 25, 2015 at 17:38
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    You overstate the case when you say that it is a criminal offence in the UK to deliberately offend someone in public. The newspapers offend people in public every day. Commented Apr 28, 2015 at 8:14
  • @Lostinfrance See telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/7862137/… for example.
    – Simd
    Commented Apr 28, 2015 at 8:22

Freedom of speech is significantly but not drastically less protected in the UK than in the US.

Please note that I am NOT a lawyer. What follows is merely info I picked up from a long term interest in freedom of speech issues, sharpened by once thinking I was going to be involved in a legal case.

Historically neither English (and I believe also Scottish) statute law nor Common Law gave any specific assertion of the principle to freedom of speech, except (and it is a big "except") in the sense that it was a principle of law that anything not specifically prohibited was permitted. In practice this allowed freedom of speech except where limited by laws against slander, libel, sedition, blasphemy, obscenity, disclosure of official secrets etc.

The situation changed somewhat when the UK acceded to the European Convention of Human Rights in 1951 and more strongly with the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law. Article 10 of the ECHR states that everyone has the right to freedom of expression.

A significant precedent under the ECHR was Handyside vs UK (1976), which specifically stated that ideas that offend, shock or disturb are protected. (Though Handyside still lost his case.)

The Human Rights Act / Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights are thus the closest the UK has to an equivalent to the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

The main Act of Parliament curtailing free speech in the UK is the Public Order Act 1986.

Part 3 of the Act makes it a criminal offence to use (Section 18) or publish (Section 19) threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with the intent of stirring up racial hatred where racial hatred is likely to be stirred up.

In 1994 a new section 4A was added regarding harassment "which causes another to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against him or her; or causes another serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on his or her usual day-to-day activities".

In 2006 a new section 3A was added extending it to cover religious hatred.

In 2008 section 3A was extended to cover hatred based on sexual orientation.

See this link to the Crown Prosecution Service for details: http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/p_to_r/public_order_offences/

Holocaust denial is not illegal in the UK, nor are rude words.

Defamation law is much more harsh in the UK than the US.

Media Law by Robertson and Nicol (5th edition 2008) is a good reference source.

  • This is a nice answer although I don't agree with the first line.
    – Simd
    Commented May 5, 2015 at 6:14

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